Dave on Marriage

Same-Sex Marriage: How We Got Here

They Didn't Blow Out the Candles

Marriage Is ONE Boat, Not Two


Same-Sex Marriage: How We Got Here
by David W. Downing, copyright 2004

It seems that, somehow, we have very quickly reached the point where same-sex marriage, once a radical idea, now sounds like a perfectly reasonable proposition to a significant share of the populace. How have we gotten to this point? It's the result of changing attitudes toward marriage -- or that which used to be known simply as marriage, but which now is being further defined as "traditional" marriage.

It's been said that allowing same-sex marriages will undermine traditional marriage. But in a way, that's getting it backward. It's only because of how much we've already undermined marriage, that so many people take the same-sex marriage idea seriously.

At the heart of the call for same-sex marriage is the idea that marriage is some sort of "benefit" that the government "gives" to people. As journalist Rick Montgomery described it in a story that appeared March 2 in the Pioneer Press, marriage is a "public platter of tax breaks, health-care benefits, child-custody and inheritance rights."

But marriage as a "benefit" is a new and radical idea. Until at most 25 years ago, marriage was not considered a benefit given to you. It was a responsibility YOU OWED to society and the government. Marriage legally and morally obligated an historically male breadwinner to provide for his wife and children, so that society (the government) would not have to support them.

It used to be that if a man and a woman wanted to share a household, share a bed, and share children, they got married. Societal mores and pressures required them to get married if they wanted to pursue that life together.

But now, to many people, marriage is optional. It's not a prerequisite for living together, sleeping together, or producing children together. And as a result, society (the government) pays a high price in supporting all of those mothers without husbands, and children without fathers.

Because so many people think marriage is optional and a "benefit," they no longer say, "Honey, let's get married so we can share a house, a life and a family." Now some of them are saying, "Honey, I was talking to my attorney and my tax advisor, and they said that since we already live together and have children, we could get some financial and legal benefits if we got married."

"We're approaching relationships as a consumer issue rather than a covenant issue," according to Deborah Smith, a University of Missouri-Kansas City sociology professor quoted in Montgomery's story.

Did my wife and I get married nearly 17 years ago because we were "smart shoppers"? Of course not. To us, it was the inevitable and natural course of our unfolding lives. We got married to join the continuum of the family of man. Perpetuate the species. Grow a new branch on the family tree. Or, for those of you who get your philosophy from Disney movies, it was all about being part of The Circle of Life.

But Smith is right. Many people now view marriage as a "consumer issue."

And once marriage is seen as something done not out of obligation to society, but rather for selfish reasons -- to obtain government benefits for oneself -- it becomes an easy leap to see "discrimination" when not every coupling is recognized as a marriage.

And so we are left on opposite sides of a great divide. One group, who view marriage as a "covenant" protecting the welfare of each new generation, find the idea of same-sex marriage nonsensical. Another group, who view marriage as a "consumer issue" about dollars and individual rights, ask, "Why shouldn't there be same-sex marriage? What's the difference? It's only fair."

How will the issue be decided? I don't know. Like most Americans, I'm still stunned that same-sex marriage has gone, virtually overnight, from radical idea to reality (even if just in a few jurisdictions). Just weeks ago, I never would have thought same-sex marriage would become a front-burner issue in 2004.

But I do know that we wouldn't even be having this debate if we had given more respect -- not just lip service -- to traditional marriage over these past three decades.

This was written in March 2004 for submission to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, which passed on it. It was subsequently published, with very minor modification for that audience, in The Evangel, the publication of The American Association of Lutheran Churches (The AALC).

For some postscript commentary on this essay, click this link.


They didn't blow out the candles
by David W. Downing, copyright 2004

July, 2004

I recently read of a couple of accounts of married couples having problems because they weren't fully merged as a couple. One woman wrote to an advice columnist to say that she thinks her husband should pay more toward their household expenses than she does, because he makes more money. But He says that's not fair, because he has more expenses, such as payments for "his" car and motorcycle. The advice columnist said they should go to a financial adviser, who could help them decide what was fair.

In another instance, a woman wrote to a financial columnist with a similar complaint. She was upset that she contributed more toward the couple's new house, because she has more money and her husband has debts that apparently she doesn't feel any obligation to help him pay. She wanted to know how to "get over" the feeling that this wasn't fair. The columnist, Michelle Singletary of the Washington Post, replied, "By getting over it. Really. You married the guy. You decided to join in union with him. To me, that means everything is on the table and becomes 'ours.'" Good advice.

I know what the problem was with these couples: They didn't blow out the candles.

In this part of the country, there's a wedding tradition called the Unity Candle. (I'm not saying it's exclusive to this part of the country, but the Web is world-wide, so not everyone may know what I'm talking about.) The bride and groom each use a candle to together light a much larger candle. This is supposed to signify the two becoming one.

But there are two different ways of completing the job of lighting the Unity Candle. One practice -- I think the older, more traditional one -- is for the bride and groom to blow out their individual candles once the Unity Candle is lit. This signifies that where before there were two, there now is one.

But the other way of doing it is for the bride and groom to leave their individual candles burning. Proponents say that this signifies that just because the two have gotten married, they haven't "given up their individual identities."

Hogwash, I say. The marriage creates something greater than the sum of its parts. That's why the Unity Candle is so much larger than the two individual tapers. To take the position that, "I'm married, but I'm still an individual," is asking for trouble. Marriage is about one entity: "us." It's not about two individuals, and it's certainly not about three people -- "me, you and us."

The Union is all important. Now, that doesn't mean that there aren't still two people. Of course there are. But here's the interesting part. Each individual needs to stop focusing on him- or herself, and start focusing on..... the other! If each spouse puts the other first, then each still has someone looking out for them. And if your foremost thought is for your spouse to be happy, then when you help make your spouse happy, you will both be happy. That's the recipe for marital success.Marriage should not be a viewed as a competition between spouses, or as a zero-sum game.

So here's an idea for a third way of doing the Unity Candle: If they aren't going to extinguish the two tapers, then the bride and groom, after lighting the Unity Candle together, should exchange tapers, symbolizing that each is now taking responsibility for looking out for the other.


As I dig out things to put on this website, I keep finding writings that I had completely forgotten about. Here's another thought on marriage from a few years back.

Marriage Is ONE Boat, Not Two
by David W. Downing, copyright 2001

In [the newspaper] there was a cover story about marriage. In the story, a marriage and family therapist says that marriage is a partnership. Good. But then the therapist offers this metaphor:

"I have my canoe, and he has his. The agreement we have is to paddle along together through our lives."

Wrong, wrong, wrong! That may be a good metaphor for friendship, but when it comes to marriage, it really misses the boat.

You see, marriage is more like a boat. ONE boat, with two people in it. Sometimes the boat seems too small, sometimes it seems too big. But no matter what, you're both in the same boat.

Each person has an oar. Both row. Sometimes, the going is easy. It seems like the current does all the work. Other times, both row as hard as they can, but still they don't seem to make any headway. But no matter what, they're both in the same boat.

From time to time, it may seem that one is rowing harder than the other. At other times, one may be unable to row at all, so the other works that much harder to take up the slack. But no matter what, they're both in the same boat.

When they come to the rapids, they know that they'll stay side-by-side through the fury and be together at the end. Because no matter what, they're both in the same boat.

If the boat springs a leak, they both work to fix it. Because no matter what, they're both in the same boat.

At times, they may row in circles. As the years go by, they may find they're not really where they expected to be. But no matter what, they're still in the same boat.

Partners? Yes. Equals? Yes. But ONE BOAT! Not two canoes, with two paddlers each trying to set the pace. Not two canoes, which will be separated in the rapids. Not two canoes, where one can sink while the other remains afloat.

ONE BOAT. Two crew members. Together.


page and website copyright David W. Downing 2004

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